Mainly the dangers of Ayahuasca can come from
- the tea itself if not brewed correctly,
- pharmaceuticals you take in conjunction with drinking Ayahuasca,
- the retreat organizers themselves if they mis-manage a situation
- and/or other retreat participants.
Table of Contents:
- Can Ayahuasca cause permanent damage or side effects?
- Ayahuasca deaths: how it can happen and how to avoid it
- What are the long term effects of Ayahuasca?
- Is Ayahuasca legal?
- How long do the effects of Ayahuasca last?
Can Ayahuasca cause permanent damage or side effects?
Generally speaking no Ayahuasca does not cause permanent damage however, under some circumstances it is possible. In this article we will outline the various possibilities and also how to avoid them.
The danger of Ayahuasca can be removed or reduced quite easily if you prepare well and avoid certain pharmaceuticals and vet yourself or with your doctors help preferably for certain psychological aspects.
Mental Health risk after Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is generally more commonly associated with curing or helping depression and anxiety as opposed to causing these mental health effects however, this is not always the case depending on your own particular situation.
If you currently or have formerly suffered the effects of psychosis then you may be at risk of further mental health problems after drinking Ayahuasca. This is also the case if you are vulnerable to a psychosis. You can judge this vulnerability based on if someone in your immediate family has also had a psychosis. If you or someone in your immediate family has had a psychosis then Ayahuasca and other psychedelics can have negative mental health effects for you and you should refrain from taking them.
If you have questions about this aspect then you should contact a mental health professional who is familiar with psychedelic use and therapy.
Can Ayahuasca cause Anxiety?
As described above Ayahuasca is more commonly associated with helping or curing the effects of anxiety and depression however, some examples may be in order. In one anecdotal case I came across on Reddit one woman said she felt more anxiety after her Ayahuasca experiences.
I talk more about this in this article but, essentially her Ayahuasca experiences showed her some aspects about her past behavior which she regretted and needed aimed to change in the future. This realization presented itself as anxiety to her as she went about putting that lifestyle change into place.
To me this is related to Ayahuasca in so much as the realization was made during her Ayahuasca experience but it is more directly related with her previous behavior and her understanding and desire now to change it. Lifestyle changes are difficult sometimes however, because they aren’t necessarily so difficult to implement. as such anxiety about implementing that change can creep in.
Once you have understood that one of the role’s of The Ego is to look out for your immediate needs and survival then anxiety presents itself as a warning to change behavior sometimes. The more you ignore it the more you experience anxiety because your Ego will continually remind you of it. If however, you are still experiencing anxiety about it even after having made the change then perhaps you have anxiety more generally to deal with.
If you have questions about this aspect then you should contact a mental health professional who is familiar with psychedelic use and therapy.
Can Ayahuasca heal depression?
Yes Ayahuasca can heal depression and anxiety and commonly does. The best explanation for this is that it causes a ‘perception change’ in the individual that allows them to ‘step out’ of their depression and view it from another angle. This can be a difficult concept to understand without going through it. A little like understanding that the moon has approximately 1/3 the gravity of earth. Intellectually you understand what that means but you probably haven’t experienced it first hand. So, let’s try to explain this another way.
Another way to say this is from a Neuroscience point of view. Robin Carhart-Harris, a Neuroscientist from England, who has done studies on the affects of psychedelics and the brain. He found that something called the ‘default mode network’ (DMN) is reduced in its activity and connections between normally not active parts of the brain are promoted.
If we consider that the DMN is the part of your brain active most of the time when you are awake and that it is the network associated with an understanding of the self (ie the Ego) and where our habits and patterns of behavior are then we can see that this part of the brain being temporarily shut down could allow us to ‘step out’ of some of our patterns of thinking and behaviors which reinforce our depression and anxiety. While this part of the brain is not so active it gives us the chance to create new connections between parts of the brain which are not commonly active. I think that these new connections are what is meant by getting a ‘new perspective’ on your depression and ‘stepping out of your depression’.
Physical side effects of Ayahuasca and health adverse events
Nausea and Vomiting
Vomiting and Nausea are quite common after drinking Ayahuasca although it isn’t anything to worry about. Most people associate these feelings with the same effects as from alcohol when someone is hung over but actually a hang over is vastly more uncomfortable that the nausea and vomiting effects of Ayahuasca.
The vomiting I experienced in my ceremonies was mild and ‘matter of fact’. It happened and I felt nausea for a few minutes beforehand but as soon as it was done I felt fine again. The whole episode lasted perhaps 5 minutes and sometimes I didn’t vomit or feel nausea at all in my ceremonies. I would say it was 50/50 and more so in the first several ceremonies.
TIP: If you follow the Ayahuasca Dieta closely you should have very little toxins in your body to throw up which will minimize these kinds of effects for you. Also, by reducing food intake directly prior to the ceremonies you can reduce the food in your stomach with which to throw up also.
Risk of increased blood pressure
Ayahuasca Tea that one takes in an Ayahuasca ritual or ceremony contains something called Monoamine oxidase inhibitors or MAOI’s. MAOI’s are necessary for the Ayahuasca brew to be psychedelic but they also raise your blood pressure to levels which could pose a danger to your physical health depending on how you prepared for your Ayahuasca Ceremony.
An Ayahuasca Preparation Dieta is not only traditional but also knowingly reduces the risks of adverse physical effects from high blood pressure. It does this by removing foods, drinks and medications which increase blood pressure as one of their side effects.
For example, it is common in the Ayahuasca community to talk about Tyramine. Tyramine, in such foods as over ripe fruit, increases blood pressure and can lead to emergency health adverse events related to this. The Ayahuasca Dieta reduces Tyramine and other medications which increase blood pressure as a way to reduce these negative health interactions.
You can read more about which drugs you might want to exclude and also foods and any other contraindicated substance in The Full Ayahuasca Preparation Guide.
Serotonin Syndrome effects
Serotonin Syndrome is when your Serotonin Receptors are overloaded. In the case of Ayahuasca this is because Ayahuasca contains DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) which attaches to the Serotonin Receptors in the brain.
If Ayahuasca users are also taking medications which interacts with the Serotonin Receptors then these can both be acting upon the receptors at the same time which can lead to a dangerous overloading known as Serotonin Syndrome.
Commonly these kinds of medications are those used for depression but are not limited to these alone. There is a partial list here on what medications to avoid. For any further considerations please take the advice of your doctor.
You can read more about Serotonin Syndrome in the section below.
Risk of addiction
While Ayahuasca and the psychoactive ingredient DMT can be considered a drug it is more commonly associated with healing addictions than causing one.
According to the American Addiction Centers Ayahuasca is not addictive in that it does not require you need a larger dose to gain a similar effect the more you use it. They say,
The use of ayahuasca does not appear to be associated with the development of significant tolerance. Tolerance occurs when an individual requires a significant increase in the amount of the drug to get the same effects that were once achieved at lower amounts. Because it appears that there is no significant development of tolerance for ayahuasca, the potential for anyone to develop physical dependence on the drug is extremely rare.American Addiction Centers
Actually Ayahuasca is more often associated with curing addiction and substance abuse of various kinds including alcoholism. It is not known exactly how this works but I have a partial hypothesis for how this might work.
As I have discussed elsewhere in this article Ayahuasca and other psychoactive drugs like Psilocybin reduce activity in your brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN). I suspect that this is where you addictive and negative thought patterns (like those associated with depression and anxiety) reside.
Under the influence of Ayahuasca the DMN is reduced in activity and new neural connections are created between parts of the brain which do not normally form connections. Somehow during this process I think addictive patterns are replaced or healed in some way.
I have also associated these new neural connections with the visions and hallucinations that people have in the Ayahuasca Ceremony ritual as a way to access these new neural connections in the future constituting a permanent psychological change.
Ayahuasca experience stories and visionary effects
In my own Ayahuasca ceremonies I have had hallucinatory or visionary effects that I can connect to the above description of Default Mode Network (DMN) being reduced in activity which allows for new connections to be made.
I think that in Ayahuasca ceremonies the visionary effects are a bit like a memory except that it is formed within your mind and without external stimuli or phenomena. They are filled with visuals, sounds, emotions and feelings just like a real life experience which, instead of being internally produced, use your main 5 senses to sense external phenomena.
These hallucinatory effects are formed when your DMN is reduced in activity and hence are formed by parts of your brain which we are not consciously aware of or experiencing most of the time.
In summary, I think that these hallucinations act like memories and for some reason they are very useful in dealing with or healing the kinds of patterns, in this case depression and anxiety, which reside in the DMN.
I suspect that these visionary experiences act like a ‘foot hold’ out of negative thought patterns characterized by depression and anxiety. Because they act like a memory they allow us to remember that experience we had during our Ayahuasca ceremonies. Because these hallucinations happened in parallel with new neural connections being made these memories are actually ways to bypass the old neural connections and access the new ones. These new ones were created, if you had good shaman, in an effective, supportive, positive and loving environment where you were able to explore these kinds of things.
If the above is true then it follows that our brain (really the whole nervous system) has within it the capacity to heal itself if we can induce a scenario which allows it to do so.
How to choose a retreat for your Ayahuasca Ceremonies
One of the dangers of doing Ayahuasca is that not all retreat owners and managers are legitimately interested in helping you heal and in fact are more interested in your USD. If you were to go to one of these at worst you can be injured or even die in some rare cases (more on how to avoid that below) and at best have a dud or basically unhelpful experience.
In my opinion the best way to find an Ayahuasca retreat is,
- to get a recommendation from a trusted friend or acquaintance.
- Failing this I have put together a list of Ayahuasca retreats which you could use as a starting point for your search. I have not been to most of them personally but have tried to find a set of retreats that seem to do things well and with locations from around the world (mostly North America, South America and Europe). By ‘do things well’ I mean,
- take days off in between ceremonies,
- do a medical screening to assess your risk of taking Ayahuasca prior to accepting a booking,
- have experienced shamans (according to their website info)
- and in some cases have small group sizes to maximize attention to you but also sufficiently cover their costs.
- NOTE: Actually this aspect of small group size is quite hard to find in a retreat. Santuario Huishtin was one of the only to be able to do this and the other aspects.
- You can also vet any retreat you are unsure of or indeed ask for unbiased suggestions in the Ayahuasca Reddit Group just in case you don’t know of anyone who can recommend a retreat for you or you don’t like my recommendations.
Ayahuasca deaths: how it can happen and how to avoid it
Some people have died from taking Ayahuasca however these cases are rare. In my research and understanding when this has happened it is because someone has not prepared well for drinking Ayahuasca and has taken drugs (or medications) which contraindicates (ie does not mix safely with) with Ayahuasca Tea. This can lead to Serotonin Syndrome or negative health effects from high blood pressure.
I compared Ayahuasca Deaths in South America to traffic related deaths of tourists and found that you are much more likely to be killed in a traffic accident in South America rather than by Ayahuasca but in some rare cases it does happen.
I think that this research helps us to understand the probability of danger when we are assessing risk and side effects of Ayahuasca. I think we can conclude that there is a risk but that it is low and even lower if you are well prepared with a good understanding of the things you should include and exclude in an Ayahuasca preparation Dieta.
What are the long term effects of Ayahuasca?
Can Ayahuasca ‘change you’?
I described this more in the above section but in short, yes Ayahuasca can change you by creating new neural connections aka, neurogenesis. In my experience and those of others, it allows you to gain a new perspective on your life and whatever issues you may have. These effects are actually available to you via not just Ayahuasca by also other psychoactive drugs (like LSD and Psilocybin).
This is because, I think, Ayahuasca allows you to ‘step out’ of your Default Mode Network (DMN) which comprise the parts of the brain that are active most of the time when we are awake.
In the above section, I described how Ayahuasca and other psychoactive drugs reduce activity in the DMN and actually create new neural connections (known as Neurogenesis) in the brain between areas of the brain which do not normally have contact.
I also hypothesize that the new neural connections are accompanied by hallucinatory effects which seem very real because they involve emotions, visual aspects, sounds and feelings that more or less comprise a memory. I think these memories allow us to access these new neural connections in the future when we want to reinforce them.
TIP: Reinforcement of these new connections is an important part of the Ayahuasca process and is a part of Psychedelic Integration which is often spoken about.
The above paragraph is relevant because when I say that Ayahuasca can change you and give you a new perspective (aka ‘step out’ of your DMN) I mean that these newly formed neural connections can be accessed after your ceremony by remembering the visions you had in your Ayahuasca ceremony.
In this way you permanently have a way to access these new neural connections and this is, I would say, a permanent change.
How does Ayahuasca affect the brain?
Ayahuasca Tea contains DMT or Dimethyltryptamine which is a psychoactive agent found naturally in nature. It can be found in The Chacruna Plant used in the Ayahuasca Tea brewing process and also found naturally occurring in the human body. It has been found in the lungs for example naturally.
Once you drink the Ayahuasca Tea the DMT has been ingested it passes through the stomach into the blood stream. Once in the blood stream it travels throughout your body including your brain. The DMT will pass through the ‘blood brain barrier’ where it will attach to the Serotonin Receptors and start to cause a psychedelic effect.
The effect of a psychedelic from a neuroscience point of view is that it reduces the activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) which is the network of areas in the brain responsible for your sense of self aka identity and also your day to day navigation skills in order to survive. It’s good at learning skills and working and problem solving as we try to eat, be safe, have shelter, create families etc.
It’s the reduction in activity in this network of the brain that leads to Ego Dissolving experiences as the sense of self is reduced in strength.
The DMN also restricts your focus and ability to take in information to those things that are important for basic survival like eating, sleeping, procreating, finding shelter etc. Other information is excluded as not necessary at this time. That is until this area of the brain is reduced in activity and all of a sudden people are seeing entities, having intense internal realizations and healing trauma.
I suggest to you that this information is around you constantly and that your DMN routinely filters out this information so that you can focus on the basics of survival. As a way to support this insight of mine I suggest that science has already understood that the brain filters and changes reality on our behalf, sub-consciously all the time.
One quote from this article says,
Most of the time, the story our brains generate matches the real, physical world — but not always. Our brains also unconsciously bend our perception of reality to meet our desires or expectations. And they fill in gaps using our past experiences.https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/reality-constructed-your-brain-here-s-what-means-and-why-it-matters
So you see it is possible that our mind is filtering spiritual type information and entities with which are not required for day to day life. Actually this idea is not really my own insight but has been present in Hindu Philosophy known from The Vedas for thousands of years. In the below video Sri M describes how this works from a Vedic Philosophy point of view.
Risk of Serotonin Syndrome
Serotonin Syndrome is when you have too much Serotonin in the brain and can be caused when you drink Ayahuasca AND are taking certain pharmaceutical drugs or medications (especially those for depression) which do not mix well (ie contraindicated).
Some drugs and medications Contraindicated with Ayahuasca work via the brain’s Serotonin Receptors and DMT (the active psychedelic ingredient in Ayahuasca Tea) also acts on the same receptors which has risks.
The effects of combining Ayahuasca and contraindicated drugs or medications can lead to an overload of these Serotonin receptors and hence Serotonin Syndrome. This is something that should very very much be avoided and can in extreme cases result in death or other negative health side effects.
Is Ayahuasca legal?
In most countries and locations Ayahuasca is either not legal or in some sort of legal grey zone as it may not be directly addressed. If you are in the USA then Peru, Mexico and Colombia are all common places to go where Ayahuasca is either legal or commonly practiced in some sort of legal grey zone.
How long do the effects of Ayahuasca last?
The Ayahuasca’s effects can last between 4 to 8 hours depending on the particular shaman running the ceremony. In my experience, they are between 4 and 6 hours but could be shorter if there were only a few people in them.